Sign language has a long and interesting history. From the first hand and facial gestures to the various sign language dialects that exist today, sign language has changed and developed just like spoken languages have over time. So, who actually invented sign language? While various people are credited as inventors of sign language, there’s actually no single answer. Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of sign language.

When Was Sign Language First Invented?

Two people holding hands by interlocking pointer fingers.

Image by Nic Rosenau is licensed with Unsplash License

Just like the spoken English language, sign language is difficult to trace back to a specific point and person in history. Various types of sign languages have evolved over the course of human history, and new sign languages often used elements of other sign languages along the way. Before formal sign language existed, people still used hand and facial gestures to communicate. Just think about how babies and children communicate before they have the words to say what they want — they grab, point, shake their heads, and turn away to get their ideas across.

This natural human method of communicating is a version of sign language. The same can be said about early humans, who interacted using hand and facial gestures before developing speech. However, the deaf have been persecuted throughout history, so sign language didn’t develop until the 1500s. That’s when a Benedictine monk named Pedro de Leon developed a form of sign language that would allow him to communicate during his vow of silence.

Juan Pablo further developed sign language in 1620 by creating a sign dictionary and alphabet. The book Bonet wrote included the first known manual alphabet system, depicting hand shapes that represented various speech sounds. However, this accomplishment is better understood as the creation of the first known system, not the first manual alphabet.

Around the same time, a small commune in Martha’s Vineyard developed its own sign language as well. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, or MVSL, is an early sign language used on the island off the coast of Massachusetts. Starting in the 17th century, hereditary deafness was common on Martha’s Vineyard, and the community maintained MVSL for many years. The deaf people in this community weren’t the first to use sign language as Bonet came first, but MVSL had a direct impact on the schools for the deaf that were started in the coming years.

How Did Formal Sign Language Begin?

In 1771, Charles Michel De L’Epee, a French Priest, created a free public school in Paris for deaf students. The school was the first free public school for the deaf. This marked a moment of significant progress in creating a standard, formal sign language. L’Epee translated the whole French alphabet into a sign language dictionary in order to educate the students at the school he created. Instead of only letters, this dictionary included concepts, ideas, and symbolic gestures. As a result, many people think L’Epee invented sign language.

While his efforts indeed produced the first widely used sign language, the story is more complex. That’s because children from all over the country came to L’Epee’s school. The students had been signing at home to communicate, and when they arrived at the school, their own signs came with them. L’Epee created his standardized sign language based on the home-signs students brought after learning all the different signs. So, like Bonet, L’Epee developed a system, but he did not create the language. This standard sign language would eventually become French Sign Language and was used widely in Europe.

How Did American Sign Language Develop?

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet developed American Sign Language, or ASL, in the 1800s. Gallaudet wanted to help his neighbor’s deaf daughter and traveled to Europe to meet with a deaf instructor of French Sign Language named Laurent Clerc. The pair are credited as the inventors of ASL, and they founded the first American school for the deaf in 1817.

Just like with L’Epee’s school, children from across the country came to the school and brought home-signs when they did. While the teachers used French Sign Language, many deaf children from Martha’s Vineyard ended up enrolling, bringing signs from MVSL. Other deaf students used their own home-sign systems. All these elements came together to form what would become ASL. The sign language unique to the United States might also have included influences from the Great Plains Native American signing system.

That’s not where the story ends. Since the development of American Sign Language and French Sign Language, sign language has developed around the world. Examples include the England BSL and Australian Auslan. All in all, sign language, just like vocal communication, has a rich and diverse world.

What Are the Benefits of Learning Sign Language in Childhood?

Any child can experience great benefits from learning sign language early on. Babies and toddlers who learn sign language get earlier access to language. It’s important to note the difference between language and speech. Speech involves the sound used to produce words, while language is a system of communication. Language can thus include voice sounds, written symbols, or gestures. Research has shown that using sign language doesn’t hinder a child’s speech development.

In fact, using sign language can help babies and young children to develop their language skills, including verbal and non-verbal language skills. Children who learn sign language can enjoy benefits such as:

  • Increased vocabulary.
  • Better language comprehension.
  • Fewer temper tantrums due to frustration.
  • Increased social skills.

Here at Crème de la Crème, we strive to educate the whole child. Our infant care and toddler care programs include sign language as part of the curriculum. The baby sign language program at Crème de la Crème learning centers gives your infant or toddler a way to communicate what they want and need before they can verbalize these things. Our teachers introduce signs for more, eat, drink, help, and others, reducing stress, easing frustration, and encouraging speech development in our students.

Sign language has a long history, and teaching your child baby sign language can expose them to this rich language while promoting language acquisition. Contact us today to schedule a tour of your local Crème de la Crème.